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Legal Experts Advise Businesses on Workplace COVID-19 Planning: The Week Ahead

As much as the coronavirus is a global health crisis, its spread is sparking business disruption, and the time to plan is now.

Business must devise contingency plans that include scheduling or shift changes, remote working and cross-training workers on essential responsibilities, according to Mike Droke and Aaron Goldstein, partners at Dorsey, a law firm with more than 500 attorneys.

In a Dorsey webinar earlier this week, the duo advised companies to instruct employees about these plans to reduce panic and uncertainty; monitor school closings and other possible events that could affect employees so a response is readily available; inform and reassure staff of their options for sick leave either for themselves or for the care of family members; and have a plan in place in the event a staff member develops symptoms or is diagnosed with the coronavirus, also known as COVID-19.

“Come up with a plan now [to deal with a] pandemic is the number-one protection, even if you can’t see it coming,” Goldstein said. Having a plan in place that is communicated to employees will tamp down on panic and keep staff calm, he explained. “Continue communication, even as the plan changes as new information is changing. Respond in real time,” he added.

Reducing “density in the workplace” can also help to contain spreading the virus. This could mean allowing employees to work from home, or scheduling staggered shifts so people aren’t “densely packed together,” Goldstein said, noting that cross-training key personnel can help to ensure business continuity. Building redundancy means a backup will more likely be available should a staff member become infected. And for employees who work with sensitive information, Goldstein recommends businesses developed protocols to protect trade secrets and ensure data security.

When working from home is not an option, as is the case for store employees, “monitor your need,” Goldstein advised. “You don’t want to overstaff if demand is low.”

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The pair weighed in on what businesses can do about sick time and about mild cases of coronavirus infection. “If they feel they can’t stay home, they could spread the virus,” Goldstein noted, advising that companies might want to consider a “temporary situation of limited sick leave or allow [employees] to accrue a negative sick leave balance if they stay home and quarantine.”

Companies in the retail sector, where hourly or low-wage employees are the norm, should consider implications for workers who don’t work–such as cancelled shifts–and in turn wouldn’t qualify for unemployment. That could include putting into place a sick leave program that allows them to not go into work, Droke said.

“While that is not [what a company is] legally obligated to do, there’s also PR and not allowing [the option] could mean paying a price after this is over,” Goldstein emphasized.

Employers can require employees to go home if they exhibit symptoms of the virus, as well as require them to be tested or wait 14 days–the typical incubation period– before returning to work.

Companies can obtain updated information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at cdc.gov.

“This is not a drill…. This is a time for pulling out all the stops,” Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the World Health Organization’s director general, said Friday. He was calling for wider action among countries, noting that the time to contain the coronavirus was running out.

On Friday, U.S. President Donald J. Trump signed an $8.3 billion financing package to fight the coronavirus domestically and provide some aid overseas. A good portion of the emergency funding is earmarked for work on a vaccine, as well as provide aid for testing for the virus.

Data on Friday indicated that there are over 100,000 cases of infections globally, with over 3,300 deaths from the flu-like virus. And a data compilation from Johns Hopkins indicated that at least 55,000 patients have recovered from their infections.